Suleimaniah, Iraq -- There's no doubt about it, compared to Baghdad and most places in the centre and South of Iraq, Kurdish towns and cities in the North, such as Suleimaniah, are a pleasure.
Where telecommunications is sketchy at best in Baghdad, the phone and Internet lines in Kurdistan are clear and strong.
The landscape of most Iraqi cities is cluttered with the tools of security -- razor-wire, tall concrete barriers and closed-off areas -- and with the detritus of war -- collapsed buildings, debris on rutted streets and twisted metal. In the north, however, there's a building boom under way and little of the ugliness of conflict.
In this city, capital of the province of Suleimaniah and home of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan run by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, there's a string of tall office and other buildings going up; even a five-star hotel with the cut of a billowing sail reminiscent of Dubai.
My Iraqi colleague, a resident of Baghdad, was visibly stunned by the skyline as we drove through the pass that opened onto this city. He hadn't been here for six years and had no conception of what was transpiring in the north. His own neighbourhood of Adamiyah is a warren of roadblocks and dusty pothole-filled streets.
Such is the benefit of having the headstart Kurds had in building a new post-Saddam community. From 1991, after the war to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait, the Kurds benefitted from a U.S.-enforced safe zone.
In those days, they struggled mightily from shortages of everything. Their only income was from a tax they levied on vehicles smuggling oil out of Iraq and goods into Iraq in contravention of the UN embargo.
The trucks passed through Kurdistan on their way from Turkey to Mosul in Iraq, and back again. Kurdish Peshmerga stopped each vehicle and took a share.
They erected a parliament building in 1992 and began functioning like a democratic state, years ahead of when most Iraqis could do so.
Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Kurds have progressed even faster. There was little of the fighting that gripped the South, except around the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul that straddle the Kurdish-Arab divide (and remained disputed territory, claimed by both sides).
And where once they coped with a meagre income, these days they receive 17 per cent of the revenue Iraq derives from oil. That's enough to fund the fancy new buildings (though much work needs to be done on the basics of life such as education).
There's one thing the Kurdish region has in common with the rest of Iraq: traffic jams in the cities. But whereas the bottlenecks in Baghdad are mostly from numerous security checkpoints, in Suleimaniah they're from laying new roads, and resurfacing old ones.